Posts Tagged ‘World War II

19
Mar
14

an update, sadly

I have just returned from a visit to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. The day before I arrived in Prague for this last trip I learned of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of The Holocaust. In January I wrote about the gratitude for the inspiration I had received from reading her story and watching interviews and videos of her remarkable life’s story. I carried the inspiration with me while photographing again in Terezin (Theresienstadt), and later, in Oswiciem (Auschwitz).

Sometimes it seems to me that sadness upon sadness and sorrow upon sorrow are all that remains. But that is not true. Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s infectious laugh, her twinkling eyes, and the joy she expressed in her music remain and will continue to inspire many more people.  What remains for me? I think it must be gratitude. Gratitude that joy expressed during the darkest moments created enough light, enough hope to sustain one soul…and that one beautiful soul can inspire many others for lifetimes to come.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/world/europe/alice-herz-sommer-pianist-who-survived-holocaust-dies-at-110.html?_r=0

SOMMER-1-obit-master675

Photograph of an original program from Theresienstadt/Terezin listing concerts by Alice Herz-Sommer.

Photograph of an original program from Theresienstadt/Terezin listing concerts by Alice Herz-Sommer.

 

The photograph above was made from materials exhibited in the Spanish Synagogue, in Prague.

20
Nov
11

Terezîn, Czech Republic

You may recall that Terezîn was formerly called Theresienstadt, under Nazi rule during World War II.  It is/was a garrison town built in the 1780’s as a fortress by the Hapsburg rulers. You can read more about it by clicking this link. My interest in Terezin is multi-layered and even a bit complicated. But over all of it lies this sense of amazement for the life that the residents of Terezin ghetto created for themselves during this descent into Hell.

From the first days, the residents, in the form of the Jewish Council of Elders, decided that to survive this experience, the children must be educated and the community as a whole must have access and participation in the ARTS. Performances of original plays, musical recitals, Verdi’s Requiem, and the renowned children’s opera “Brundibar”, took place in Terezin regularly. The education of the children, though forbidden, went on nearly without stopping. Thanks to incredible teachers and instructors, children produced art works and magazines for the entire community. These activities, along with their involvement in “Brundibar” would be, what one survivor described, “the last source of great joy in their lives.” (Jiri Kotouc, Home L 417).

I am working on a project that came from my need to understand the human capacity for such darkness in the face of joy, love, and humanity. It is proving to be more difficult than I imagined. But I’ve decided to put up a few photos from my days in Terezin, just to communicate a little of the solitude and sadness that still lives here. Terezin is unique in all of Europe in that people inhabit, today, the very same structures that housed Jews, Danes, Poles, Czechs and others, the vast majority of whom perished in the Holocaust. More than 10,000 children lived in Terezin, fewer than 200 survived.

I want to photograph the people of Terezin today, against the backdrop of all this history. It’s not easy. I haven’t been successful yet. But I will keep trying.

If you have any interest in this story, I urge you to read The Girls of Room 28, by Hannelore Brenner. You will be saddened, uplifted, and probably left with the same questions that have haunted me for a number of years. But I predict that you will have a deeper understanding of the importance of art and education in all our lives.

More than anything, the children longed for the open spaces of their villages and towns. I spent a day driving all over the countryside, when fog hung in the air and hoarfrost coated every surface. I wanted to get to know the countryside a little better.  The damp and cold, coupled with the moody lighting and absolute stillness was to me totally appropriate.  It turns out that I don’t know how to portray sadness and sorrow…. a sadness and sorrow so deep that it threatened to engulf an entire people. In the end I could only photograph what I saw and what I felt.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the very first transport to Terezin of Jews from points all over what was Czechoslovakia. It is just a small footnote in a large history. But it is not forgotten.

I’ll close with the words of someone far more articulate than I, Rabbi David Cooper:

“…what happens when the suffering is too great? When it engulfs and extinguishes people and hope? I don’t think we have learned a thing collectively. Is it enough that individuals have? It must be ~ and therefore, every heart, every light DOES matter. This alone gives me hope.”

29
Oct
10

European Wrap Up…with horses!

I suppose I couldn’t go too long without posting some equestrian images on the blog.  History has long been a passion for me. Seeing the prevalence of the horse in European culture for centuries was a reminder of how dependent we have been on our equine friends for the advancement of civilization. Thankfully, horses are no longer used in warfare in most parts of the world, but they are still being abused and neglected. I’ve been working with Dominique and Debra Barbier on some behind the scenes projects….there will soon be an announcement about their efforts to educate riders and trainers about the correct, classical and compassionate training of the horse for all disciplines and levels. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the gallery. It’s an eclectic mix, but reflects some of the cultural landscape from Eastern Europe.

15
Oct
10

“…the man who has seen Prague might tell us something.” Dr. Johnson

What can I tell you about Prague?  My strongest impression: Prague is a powerful juxtaposition of new and old. After elbowing through a crowd of tourists navigating narrow lanes, you can discover restaurants in ancient vaulted spaces proclaiming “Slow Food Prague Approved”. You can see the Old Jewish Cemetery (with 12,000 tombstones succumbing to gravity and erosion) or new works by inspiring artists in galleries on every block. You can watch a new beginning take place on the steps of a centuries old castle……or turn the corner and have a meal and a beer at the oldest medieval pub in Prague while you put up your latest blog post (they have wifi). Tour St. Vitus’ Cathedral and discover a distinctly Czech color palette and style in new stained glass that coexists with an artisan’s window from the 14th century.

Though I have seen Prague, I feel like there is so much more to see.  It is, in this way, very much like London, Paris, Florence, or Rome…..it is nearly unknowable.  The pace of the change feels like it could be faster than the cities I’ve mentioned. Prague has long been a center of learning and expression in art, literature, science and music….but the desire to “catch up” since the fall of the Iron Curtain is manifested in the street scene and in the vibrancy of a very young population.

I think that it will soon be very difficult to find vestiges of mid-20th century Prague. Sophisticated architecture, fashion, cuisine, and a heavily centered tourist economy will erase what is left from this time. But the best parts will certainly remain.  See Prague and you will see the height of Baroque (and earlier) European culture displayed in the churches, in the music, and the glorious decorated architecture. See Prague and you will see a populace alive with possibility while preserving its storied intellectual and social awareness. See Prague and you will see heart-rending evidence of loss and the annihilation of a population that gave so much to the life blood of a great city.

See Prague.

13
Oct
10

the journey continues: Terezin

A caveat: I am not a scholar….I am not a philosopher…..I hesitate to write about this subject as so many have come before me and written profoundly and with tremendous compassion and knowledge.  I offer my thoughts as a simple commentary from a caring human that happens to use a camera to add to the dialogue.

Terezin (or Theriesenstadt as it is more widely known) was a jolt. Having a cup of tea in what turned out to be one of the workshops for the inhabitants of the ghetto was simply surreal. The waiter, the furniture, the strange green gray paint on the wall, cobwebbed windows and the slightly dirty table cloth created an atmosphere of such oppression. It felt like all life had been drained from this town and in its place was poured inertia and darkness.  I was unprepared for the fact that people LIVE in this town. I kept looking around for the “site” and then realized I was standing IN the site. This helped to explain the feeling that I was walking in a gray airless space.

After walking the perimeter I left the town and went to the Small Fortress.  The town of Terezin was built originally as a fortified garrison town.  To the north lies the small fortress…what became a center of torture and death for Czech political prisoners and resistance figures, locals accused of aiding prisoners, and people from Terezin who had defied some rule or conspired in some way to make life a little better.  Again, the juxtaposition of horror (the cells of the fortress) existing within 30 feet of lovely homes and lawns (the lodging for the commandant and adjutants) filled me with revulsion and anger.

I walked through the fortress…..learned that it is a place of deep sadness for Czechs as so many of their heroes died here…..and learned about the citizens who risked their lives and often lost them to help a prisoner. Smuggling a letter or trying to get a bit of food for a prisoner was punishable by death, after having been tortured. The Small Fortress at Terezin is a blessedly silent monument to martyrdom, to true heroism, and to the values that compelled citizens to try to help, even in the smallest ways.

I went back to the town to visit the Ghetto Museum.  This is a large building that borders a small park, with big leafy trees that line the sidewalk. It is housed in what was a boy’s dormitory.  More than 10,500 children passed through Terezin from 1940 to 1945.  Less than 300 survived. Walking the halls of the museum and looking at all the children’s drawings ~ of holidays, of seasons, of family and of home ~ was heartbreaking. And then beneath the incredibly precious works of art the artist’s name, birth date, and date and place of his or her death is inscribed. What can anyone say when faced with this much loss? Humanity’s loss? Photographs were forbidden and I certainly didn’t want to disrespect the memory of the children and their heart’s work…..but I did make a photo of a small part of a wall….just one of many….that was inscribed with the youngest victim’s names. I made it in a way that I hope invokes the feeling of their departure, but also their journey to a better place…..surrounding us all in the air we breath and the molecules that pass through us in each moment. They are us and we are them.

10
Oct
10

contemplating light and shadow

I write to understand as much as to be understood.
~Elie Wiesel

I’ve been traveling in Eastern Europe for four days.  I chose the quote by Elie Wiesel to begin this post because I, too, write to understand. I photograph with the same desire in my heart. So as a student of World War II history, I came to photograph and to contemplate, while in this very landscape, the conflagration that was World War II.

Oerbke, Becklingen, Bergen-Belsen.  While the last place-name is probably familiar, the first two are far less likely to be recognized.  They all represent unspeakable violence and waste ~  sadness so profound that many have found it inescapable.

Oerbke is a cemetery for the Soviet prisoners of war who died of starvation and disease. Becklingen is a cemetery for British, Polish, Soviet, and other soldiers of the Allied powers. Bergen-Belsen is yet another hell created by man to destroy fellow human beings for reasons of ethnicity, sexual preference, political ideology, and other equally inane characterizations.

Let me say this:  I have no understanding of it. I don’t have the slightest idea of how to gain one bit of perspective on any of it. I have tried through reading, through serious meditation, and now by traveling to these places to walk the same earth. I have failed.

I was as moved at Oerbke as I was at Bergen-Belsen. Thinking of loved ones far from home, family members left wondering for months and years about the fate of their families, whether Soviet or Jew or Communist, I could only think about the grief that must still live in the hearts of so many.  A grief this large, a pain this immense can only be resolved in acts of loving kindness. Are there enough of us to do this? To heal this earth, our hearts?

While at Becklingen, reading the grave markers of young men from age 18 to 30, I could only think “what an immoral, insupportable waste”. These graves were so few among the millions…..but each one dear, each one precious and mourned by their families.

Walking in Bergen-Belsen I was struck by the beauty of the landscape that visitors see now. Fall color, with blue skies and gentle winds nudging birch leaves into flight seemed an unholy slight-of-hand.  Why wasn’t I seeing everything in black and white?  Where were the clouds? Where was the rain? Where was the mud?  I had only to close my eyes for it to come rushing up to me.  And when I did close my eyes I was overwhelmed.

I put my camera back in my hand, (added a barrier) and went back to work. Tomorrow I travel further East, into the Czech Republic. I’ll be thinking of what’s ahead, Auschwitz perhaps, Theriesenstadt…..I have ideas for images now that I’ve walked in places of such suffering.

Back to the opening quote and to my reason for being here: I’ve not gained any understanding, but I am not giving up. I do know that this type of violence continues and is insidious. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Croatia and Serbia begin a shameful litany that stretches through Cambodia, China, the Sudan. When will it end? Perhaps when we have come to know ourselves. We created these horrors and we will continue until we understand that what we do to others we do to ourselves.

27
Sep
10

Thinking of layers

“We see things not as they are. We see things as we are.” — Anais Nin

This quote mirrors my thought that “we photograph as we are”.  As I am preparing to depart for a long trip through Eastern Europe, I am thinking about who I am and how that will manifest in my photographs. Because of my long interest in the history of World War II and the resulting human and cultural destruction, I will be visiting a number of areas that were filled with violence and hate.  This energy is the opposite of what I try to photograph.  So who will I be, and what photographs will I make in these locations?  The short answer:  I don’t know.  The deeper thought: I suspect that I will excavate a few layers in my seeing and in my soul.

In preparation for the trip, I’ve been doing some housecleaning of my files.  I came across two images from last fall….images I failed to appreciate at the time so they were marked for deletion. Looking at them now I find that I am enjoying the motion and the layers in the images.  The concept is not new, but I like the way the abstract nature brings forward the structure that underlies the scene.  In the second image I can sense a bit of the style of the brushwork in Cezanne’s series from Mont Sainte Victoire. Recognizing this prompted me to look again at an image of a reflection from later in that same fall. In the reflected image I had immediately recognized the resemblance….why hadn’t I seen it in the earlier images?

My thought is that we see things differently as we grow, age, change, mature….or perhaps, excavate layers.  I’m looking forward to fall as it is my favorite season.  This fall promises to be memorable.  The quote that opened the blog post has especially poignant meaning when viewed through the lens of history, especially the history of human conflict and war. I hope you’ll check the blog for images and the archaeology of my trip.




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